WHICH metaphor would you like? Theresa May’s speech lasted less than an hour today and yet for cartoonists and historians it will come to be a neat summation of her months as Prime Minister.

Was she a sickly, spluttering, faltering leader whose own supporters were mouthing “she can’t go on” and “someone please stop her” as cruel fate conspired to strip the last vestiges of her dignity and destroy the last crumbs of her credibility.

Or was she a very human figure who ploughed resolutely on no matter what “comedians” – be they Boris Johnson or Simon Brodkin – threw at her until she had heroically completed her job. She persevered, she won through, and her party was united in applauding her steadfast sense of duty.

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The Northern Echo: Comedian Simon Brodkin, also known as Lee Nelson confronts Prime Minister Theresa May during her keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference at the Manchester Central Convention Complex in Manchester. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Comedian Simon Brodkin, aka Lee Nelson, confronts Prime Minister Theresa May during her keynote speech at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester

Today's conference speech was excruciating to watch. It was a car crash in slow motion.

It must have been worse to deliver – the unlucky Mrs May seemed to shed tears of relief when she reached the end of her agony.

Mr Johnson had cried out for the Churchillian British lion to roar, but all the British Prime Minister could do was apologetically cough and croak.

She had wanted to look statesmanlike and in control, and just as Ed Miliband couldn’t eat a bacon sandwich normally she couldn’t even sip water successfully, as it dribbled down her chin.

She had needed to look powerful and in command, but instead she looked pitiable and calamity-prone, reliant on others to get through. Chancellor Philip Hammond manfully dashed up and offered a cough sweet and Home Secretary Amber Rudd empathetically orchestrated standing ovations to buy her recovery time – noticeably Ms Rudd had to cajole Mr Johnson to his feet as he was too immersed in himself to notice another person’s suffering.

And her speech ended with letters plummeting from her backdrop slogan of “Building a country that works for everyone”. The first to fall was an “f” – when even a higher authority is telling you to “eff off” you are in trouble, but at least nothing embarrassing fell out of “country”.

It has been that sort of week for the Tories. The desolate, empty conference hall has been devoid of energy or ideas – except when it comes to plotting and manoeuvring. In a bid to inject some positivism, Mrs May subjected herself to 26 TV interviews on Tuesday, but was glued in the full glare of the cameras, pinned like a butterfly on a lepidopterist’s wall, and skewered by the questioners. “Why is everyone so miserable?” began Channel 4; why did the “stench of decay” cling to her government, asked the BBC.

Contrast this with Labour the previous week. Although it lost the election, Labour now has momentum. Its leader is riding high, adored by his party faithful who wished to chair him on their shoulders rather than stab him in the back.

Jeremy Corbyn also captured the mood of the moment, speaking about how the political ground is shifting.

A Populus poll for a right-wing think-tank this week showed the 83 per cent of British people support water re-nationalisation, 77 per cent support power re-nationalisation and 76 per cent support railway re-nationalisation. Whether we like it or not, we are all Corbynistas now – we all sense that austerity is betraying the ordinary people while benefitting the richest.

The lies of the Brexiteers – £350m-a-week for the NHS, indeed – have given Mr Corbyn the space to bandy about billions for students, for railways, for pay rises, for any cause he likes. No one seriously challenges him because no one believes expert figures anymore.

Mrs May began her response yesterday in promising style. Her mea culpa for the disastrous election was well judged; the self-deprecating joke about George Osborne was light and the tale about her grandmother, a domestic servant, was a nice personal touch.

But even before she was interrupted, she was going awry. She forgets that the reason she became Prime Minister was because, after the turmoil of the EU referendum, she was seen as a colourless but competent functionary – a safe pair of hands, or “ice maiden” as she called herself – who was best placed, out of a poor field, to deliver Brexit.

Yet she now expects people to believe that she has been suddenly reborn as a radical, impassioned crusader who has the guts and imagination to tackle the world’s injustices.

She spoke about the traditional Tory belief in free markets but then coughed and spluttered her way to her two big announcements that will intervene in failing markets: she promised money to “fix our broken housing market” and then came out with a Milibandesque cap on energy prices to fix the broken power market which sent share prices plummeting like the letters on her backdrop.

So let’s finish with that metaphor: it was gravity that was bringing down the letters, and it is gravity that is bringing Mrs May down. She is doomed. Pity alone cannot save her. She is a dead woman spluttering.

The fear for the party and the country is that she will fight against gravity just as she fought against the frog in her throat. Fearful Tories will give her sympathy and lozenges, but just as they didn’t quell her cough, they won’t quieten Boris’ ambition, and so her fight against the inevitable will be long and ground-swallowingly excruciating – just like her speech.